Isaiah 58:1-12, John 8:1-11
There’s something compelling about Ash Wednesday, something more than just the beginning of Lent. What we say and what we do on in our liturgy and worship on this particular Wednesday has power.
Something of that power lies in the fact that today the church speaks words of truth, words that cannot be ignored, or disputed, or evaded, or denied. Today we say – and confirm with a touch – “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Much else that we say in our worship here today we may hope is true, or fear is true, or believe in the core of our being, or doubt. But this we know: We are mortal. We were born. We will die, and how we live our lives matters.
From dust, to dust. Hearing the words is not enough today. Today, ashes will mark us – and our fate is strangely visible.
These words of simple, absolute truth give us a perspective the world tries all too often to either hide or deny; and if we are honest with ourselves, we probably do our best to ignore that truth much of the time.
Dust and ashes. These are what we see if we look ahead far enough and honestly enough. Today we say this, and we know its truth and its power.
Yet there is hope, hope rooted in our faith that we are created by God in His image. The dust of our beginnings – that dust from which we came – is not just a matter of chance; it is not without meaning. Our lives are gifts from God. Our dust was moulded by the hands of God, and his Spirit breathed life into it.
The grace and power of God are present at the beginning of our existence. Our dust is holy, and our ashes blessed by the power of God. What appears a threat – “you are dust” – becomes a promise. The grace and love present at our creation will see us through our physical disintegration and beyond. God is with us from our very beginning, and before. Our dust is holy; it is cherished by God.
But there is something more. The ashes on our forehead are not randomly placed; they are placed in the form of a cross – so today we are connected with both Good Friday and Easter morning. Today we remember the promise that, as we have risen from dust to this mortal life, so, with Christ, we will rise from the dust of death to eternal life. Yes, to dust we shall return, but with Christ.
Dust and ashes point us toward the power and love of God – both at the beginning and at the end. And they remind us that, because of this Good News, we are called – as we live between dust and dust – to repent and to return to Him who constantly calls us.
That call to each one of us to repent – to turn around, to change direction – doesn’t center on fear, on what will happen to us if we don’t; and it doesn’t center on guilt or duty – on what we think we ought to do. Instead, this call centers on divine grace and love – on the love that is the heart of our creation – on the love that is seen most fully on the cross. It centers on the love that transforms ashes into a symbol of hope. The love we see dimly and imperfectly reflected in every act of love and compassion between one person and another; between peoples of one community and another; between peoples of different races and cultures and another.
At the same time, repentance – turning around – is not something we can think ourselves into; neither can we simply pay lip service and have happen. It depends on concrete action. We live and we act ourselves into it.
In the UK’s wealthiest Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the voices of some of the poorest people, and those on the lowest incomes, asking for safety improvements to the flats in which they lived were repeatedly ignored in the corridors of power. As a consequence, 71 people died and many more traumatised following the fire at Grenfell Tower. That same tower stands as a biblical scale condemnation to a whole society and the values it espouses. But it was the people from local church of St. Clements, people from the neighbouring streets, people of all faiths and none, ordinary people from many different cultural backgrounds who were the first to provide food, shelter and comfort; closely followed by some of the local businesses. The tower still stands and challenges all of us about the values that underpin our lives – as individuals, as organisations, as communities, and as a nation. These are questions that demand our urgent and committed attention as we begin our Lenten journey with those words ‘Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return’ whispering in our ears.
The prophet Isaiah’s words are addressed to all people and nations who would claim to believe in a God of justice and love. Characteristically, these words were addressed to people of wealth and power. Yet as people who bear the mark of Christ given at our baptism we are called to listen carefully on this day when we will be marked once more, not with oil but with ash and words reminding us of our mortality and the transience of all things: ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return’.
The words of Isaiah shake us from any feelings of comfortable complacency we may have. The prophet challenges the people of Israel to look at themselves and think about what they are doing – they may well fast, but what good is that when they oppress their workers and continue to fight and quarrel. Faith in God revealed in our religious observance is worthless unless it reflects both in personal relationships and communities the love, compassion and justice which is of God.
Isaiah’s words were echoed centuries later by Jesus who demonstrated what it really means to loosen the bonds of injustice.
We encounter Jesus sitting in the temple, amidst the dust, teaching the people who surround him. The peace is broken as the scribes and Pharisees burst upon the scene dragging a woman caught in adultery. This frightened woman is made to stand in the midst of her powerful accusers threatening to have her stoned, painfully aware in that moment of her own mortality. But amidst the noise, the shouting in the Temple, there is a stillness, a silence in the centre – Jesus remains seated, bends over and begins to write in the dust – perhaps words or symbols of significance, perhaps playing for time – who knows. The woman’s life hung in the balance. But Jesus remains still, seated on the ground and speaks – ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone’. The community of faith needs first to look at itself. He returns to his writing and stillness returns to the centre. The noise abates as the accusers gradually leave, first the elders who by tradition, would have thrown the first stone, followed by the others. In the stillness of that early morning, the woman and Jesus are alone. He doesn’t rise above her, but remains seated, looks up at her and asks ‘Where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one sir.’ ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go on your way and from now on do not sin again.’ God’s power, unlike the power of this world, is revealed in stillness and compassion, gentleness and love, not the self-righteous indignation or implications of guilt and shame experienced by so many. These are words of profound healing love, forgiveness and grace.
His call to her, and to us, his call to repent, to ‘turn around’ centres on divine love seen most fully on the cross and in the joyful resurrection. It centres on the love that selflessly and unconditionally gives and gives again, the love that longs to draw us ever closer and ever deeper into that relationship of divine love.
So our pilgrimage continues. Today we are reminded that we are dust and will one day to dust return – and we rejoice. For God is with us – in the beginning, at the end, and even now as we live in between. We have been given this season of Lent as a gift – an opportunity to look honestly at ourselves and how we live our lives; our relationships with each other, and with our brothers and sisters across the world; our relationship to the finite resources of our world and the choices we make; and ultimately our relationship with God, the source of all life and inexhaustible love. ‘Go’ says Jesus, to the woman, to me and to each of us here. Go, live your life, but change the way you behave. Challenge injustice and oppression in all its forms. Then, by God’s grace, we may become repairers of the breach, builders of streets to live on. Amen